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An ear canal infection, which is also called otitis externa, is an infection that occurs in the outer portion of the ear, as opposed to otitis media, which occurs in the inner ear. An infection of the ear canal involves the skin of the ear canal becoming inflamed and swollen, usually because of damage or bacteria or fungus multiplying in excessively wet conditions and causing infection. The most common and most significant symptom of an ear canal infection is pain, which can be quite severe.
The ear canal is the small tube that connects the ear to the ear drum. When water or debris such as dirt or sand penetrates the ear canal, bacteria or fungus might be deposited and can multiply, causing infection and inflammation. It is commonly referred to as "swimmer's ear" because of the increased risk of developing an ear canal infection with repeated exposure to water.
Taking anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen might help to reduce inflammation and pain. Paracetamol also might reduce the pain associated with an ear canal infection. Pain can worsen when the ear is gently pulled or when the jaw is moving.
The ear might feel uncomfortably full or blocked when an ear canal infection is present. This is because of the inflammation of the ear canal. No attempt should be made to unblock the ear with a cotton bud, finger tip or other object, because this will cause further irritation to the ear canal and might worsen the infection and the associated pain.
Often, the first symptom of infection is an itchy ear. The ear also might feel warmer to the touch than is normal, and a discharge might be present. An ear canal infection also might be accompanied by a slight temperature or fever. Hearing might be reduced temporarily because of the inflammation of the ear canal.
To minimize the risk of contracting an ear canal infection, a swimming cap worn over the ears or ear plugs should be worn when swimming, especially if the ears are submerged. Getting water or shampoo in the ears while bathing should be avoided. If water does enter the ear, the head should be tilted so that the water will run back out of the ear. Foreign objects such as cotton buds should never be inserted into the ears, because this can cause damage to the ear canal, leading to pain and infection. The insertion of foreign objects also can damage the ear drum and should be avoided.